Clark's Run Still Clouded

Why Didn't He Warn Us About War in Iraq?

Which of us is the biggest war hero? Which of us has lived the life of a real commander in chief?

Retired general Wesley Clark doesn't use those specific words as he campaigns in a field of seven for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. But that is indeed his theme: That the other Democrats—and the president they want to oust—do have certain merits but none but him has the whole kit and caboodle to make a president for this perilous time. Again and again, he says to voters that he's the real deal—because he has been a successful wartime leader (Kosovo) while also conducting fruitful international diplomacy (the Dayton Accords for Bosnia).

"To me," he says at Legion halls and small-town diners, "patriotism is not dressing up in a flight suit and prancing on the deck of an aircraft carrier"—a clear reference to President Bush's romp on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln last May. "I fought for this flag. I saw brave men and women buried under it. And no Tom DeLay, John Ashcroft, or George W. Bush is going to be able to take that flag away from this party and this country."

The "all-in-one vote": General Wesley Clark
photo: Cary Conover
The "all-in-one vote": General Wesley Clark

General Clark does have an impressive résumé, and so far, that history and the quite credible duty-honor-flag stump speech has kept this political neophyte in the middle of an ever shifting pack of more seasoned presidential strivers. But a shadow trails his campaign, and it needs dealing with. It's the question of how much he knew about the preparations for the U.S. attack on Iraq and why he didn't alert the public to it.

Though he now repeats endlessly that he has "always been against President Bush's war," the record shows something else.

While he was a military analyst for CNN during the Afghanistan conflict and the run-up to the Iraq war, he told the public almost none of what he knew about the Bush administration having decided almost immediately after the 9-11 terrorist attack to lay the plans for invading Iraq. His criticisms—which are now full-blown accusations of misleading the nation into war by exaggerating the degree and imminence of Iraq's threat to U.S. security—were then tentative and almost polite. On CNN and in congressional testimony, he said only that war should be a last resort and that there was still time for multinational diplomacy to work, rather than embarking on a seemingly headlong and risky unilateral course. He said nothing in any CNN commentary, or in articles he wrote occasionally in the press, about the evidence he had been given by former colleagues in the Pentagon right after 9-11 that the decision to proceed to war had already been made.

How do we know that Clark had evidence of full-scale war plans early after the 9-11 terrorist attacks? Because he told us so in his book Winning Modern Wars, published by PublicAffairs last September (a week after he announced his candidacy), in which he says unequivocally that he learned of the Bush war plans in just two months after 9-11. But neither in the book, nor in any forum since, has the general convincingly explained why he didn't make the information public at the time, when it might have made a difference in the course of events. Would Congress, for example, had it known, so easily have passed Bush's war resolution?

The nub of what the retired general knew right after 9-11 is on page 130 of the book: "As I went back through the Pentagon in November 2001, one of the senior military staff had time for a chat. Yes, we were still on track for going against Iraq, he said. But there was more. This was being discussed as part of a five-year campaign plan, he said, and there were a total of seven countries, beginning with Iraq, then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan. . . . I left the Pentagon that afternoon deeply concerned."

Elsewhere in the book, Clark calls the Bush plan "a policy blunder of significant proportions . . . [E]vidence and rhetoric were used selectively to justify the decision to attack Iraq. . . . [We] had re-energized Al Qaeda by attacking an Islamic state and presenting terrorists with ready access to vulnerable U.S. forces."

The Voice disclosed all this in a lengthy article upon the book's publication. More recently, the general declined to be interviewed for, or to comment on, this piece about his political campaign. Clark's only explanation for his silence of nearly two years on these matters came in a Q&A session with reporters after a speech last October. First he said that his assignment at CNN was to comment on military matters, not policy issues. "There were other people [at CNN] who worked the policy piece," he said. "And, um, that may sound like not much of a distinction to you, but for CNN it was significant." But then he added: "Also, I kept hoping that what I heard [at the Pentagon] wasn't true . . . I kept hoping wiser heads would prevail." Hope is not much of a qualification for presidential decision-making.

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